Lessons From the Terrible Writing of Sword of Shannara, Chapter 1

Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara is a fantasy classic. I was warned it’s a Lord of the Rings copycat, but I knew nothing about the story or any of its characters. Naturally, I decided to read it – or try to.

Whether it’s because Brooks was still inexperienced when he wrote the first chapter of the first book, or simply because it was written in the 70s when standards were different (and probably lower), the writing is surprisingly bad. Luckily for us, it’s bad in ways fiction writers can learn from. So I’ll go through it for you, critiquing it and occasionally comparing it to Lord of the Rings.

Open Your Story With Something Interesting

The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which…

The first paragraph is possibly the most important place in the entire series, and Brooks uses it just to set the scene. Now, scene setting is important; it minimizes confusion and helps the audience visualize what’s happening. But it’s still supporting information. A book’s opening paragraph needs to bring out the central plot hook, or at least lure in the reader with something novel or exciting.

This paragraph doesn’t mention anything interesting. Tolkien did go on about the scenery, but usually it was scenery that, for instance, had trees that menacingly crowded in, steering your party in a direction you didn’t want to go. These are just normal trees.

Don’t Favor Tiny Details Over Important Ones

Flick followed the familiar trail with his eyes as he trudged wearily along, his light pack slung loosely over one shoulder. His broad, windburned face bore a set, placid look, and only the wide gray eyes revealed the restless energy that burned beneath the calm exterior. He was a young man…

Wait, he’s young? That was jarring, because his windburned face, calm demeanor, and restless eyes made me think he was a seasoned adult. You might have interpreted it differently, but here’s the point: when crafting description, present the broad strokes first, details second. The longer you go on about details, the more your audience will fill in the big gaps themselves. If they make big assumptions that are wrong, they’ll be disoriented when they figure it out.

Use Words That Mean Something

Because he had traveled this same route a hundred times, the young man noticed immediately the unusual stillness that seemed to have captivated the entire valley this evening.

Stay clear of the “everything’s too silent, something must be wrong!” trope yourself; at this point it’s overused. But in 1977, it might not have been.

The paragraph this appears in has some lovely language, but here we see the wordcraft problems that mar this chapter over and over and over again. Instead of “the unusual stillness that seemed to have captivated the entire valley,” he should have used just “the stillness that captivated the valley.” We already know the silence is unusual because Flick notices it, “seemed to have” only weakens the effect, and “entire” doesn’t change the meaning.

Give the Main Plot Some Respect

Flick listened intently for some sound of life, but his keen ears could detect nothing. He shook his head uneasily. The deep silence was unsettling, particularly in view of the rumors of a frightening black-winged creature sighted in the night skies north of the valley only days earlier.

He forced himself to whistle and turned his thoughts back to his day’s work in the country…

Wait right there! We have two huge paragraphs full of mundane description, and then a scary flying creature is tacked onto the end like an afterthought? “Oh, and by the way, there could be a super scary monster nearby, but let’s move on to boring exposition.” This is the plot. It’s supposed to show up first.

Based on what I’ve read so far, here’s roughly how I would reconstruct the opening paragraph:

Flick had traveled the valley a hundred times, so he noticed the silence. The familiar buzzing and chirping of insects normally present in the quiet of the night, the cries of birds that awoke with the setting of the sun to fly in search of food — all were missing. He shook his head uneasily, remembering the tales he’d heard of a frightening black-winged creature. They said it was sighted in the night skies north of the valley only days earlier. He forced himself to whistle as he hurried homeward.

This puts tension in the first sentence while still setting the scene. From this, we know Flick is traveling home through an unpopulated valley at night. The second paragraph could describe Flick in more detail and build the tension further.

The sentence with the familiar buzzing and chirping is from the middle of paragraph two. It’s a strong “showing” sentence. Brooks doesn’t have to repeat how the woods are silent after that, but of course he does.

Don’t Awkwardly Stuff in Useless Exposition

He forced himself to whistle and turned his thoughts back to his day’s work in the country just to the north of the Vale, where outlying families farmed and tended domestic livestock. He traveled to their homes every week, supplying various items that they required and bringing bits of news…

Flick thinking on his day’s work is an awkward excuse to talk about things we don’t need to know. We don’t even learn anything about the day’s work he’s supposed to be thinking about.

And after some nice demonstrative prose, now Brooks isn’t trying. He can’t come up with anything more illustrative than “various items that they required”? He might as well just say “things and stuff.” Even “goods from town” would be better.

Don’t Drone on During the Boring Parts

He was deep in the lowland forests now and only slivers of moonlight were able to find their way through the tick boughs overhead …

Again he recalled the strange rumors. He felt a bit anxious in spite of himself and glanced worriedly around …

He walked slowly, picking his way along the winding path that had narrowed beyond the clearing…

zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz

Don’t “Seem to” Do the Thing, Just Do the Thing

He was so intent on the trail ahead and the open land beyond the forest that he failed to notice the huge black shadow that seemed to rise up suddenly, detaching itself from a great oak tree on his left and moving swiftly toward the path to intercept him.

That sentence needs some serious work. First, let’s look at “the huge black shadow that seemed to rise up suddenly.” Flick has failed to notice this happening, so it’s clearly told from omniscient perspective, rather than the limited perspective he was using when he directed Flick’s thoughts as an excuse for exposition. How could this shadow seem to rise up? No one is watching except a narrator that knows exactly what it is and isn’t doing. I’m also fuzzy on the difference between seeming to rise up and just plain rising up. Something like “he failed to notice a huge shadow rise behind him” would be better.

Then we have “detaching itself from a great oak tree.” What else could it be detaching, its lunchbox? Plus, whenever there are “ing” verbs, it indicates simultaneous action. So this shadow is simultaneously seeming to rise up, detaching itself from an oak tree, and moving swiftly toward the path. These “ing” verbs also soften actions, making them less powerful. The sentence reads stronger as “he failed to notice a huge shadow detach from a great oak tree and move swiftly to intercept him.”

Pronouns Are Your Friends

The dark figure was almost on top of the Valeman before Flick sensed its presence looming up before him like a great, black stone which threatened to crush his smaller being.

Haha! Just “crush him” wasn’t good enough? Brooks must hate pronouns, because he uses oddities like this and like “the Valeman” or “the other” when it’s completely unnecessary. If you have multiple characters in a scene that all have the same pronoun, labels like these may be needed for clarity – but use plain ones only.

It’s also unclear why Flick “sensed its presence” rather than seeing it, as it was right in front of him.

Body Parts Should Be Attached to Characters

With a startled cry of fear he leaped aside, his pack falling to the path with a crash of metal, and his left hand whipped out the long thin dagger at his waist.

Is that a startled cry or a fearful cry? That’s forgetting neither is necessary, because Brooks has just shown there’s a huge shadow in front of Flick, so we can guess what the cry is about. It’s also strange that his left hand is whipping out a dagger of its own accord. Just “he whipped out…” would have worked.

Even as he crouched to defend himself, he was stayed by a commanding arm raised above the figure before him and a strong, yet reassuring voice that spoke out quickly.

There’s a disembodied arm and voice holding Flick back from the fight! Wait, never mind. I guess another person has entered the scene.

Characters Should Do Things That Make Sense

“Wait a moment friend. I’m no enemy and have no wish to harm you. I merely seek directions and would be grateful if you could show me the proper path.”

It’s the shadow thing talking? I didn’t see that coming. Was it really too much to say “the figure raised a commanding arm and spoke in a strong, yet reassuring voice?”

As for the dialogue itself, it may sound stiff to you if you aren’t used to high fantasy. It’s a genre convention that’s appropriate here.

Flick relaxed his guard a bit and tried to peer into the blackness of the figure before him in an effort to discover some semblance of a human being…

“I assure you, I mean no harm,” the voice continued, as if reading the Valeman’s mind. “I did not mean to frighten you, but I didn’t see you until you were almost upon me, and I was afraid you might pass me by without realizing I was there.”

You want to know a good way to alert someone you’re there? How about calling out with that disembodied voice that can speak and read minds?

Slowly the pale moonlight began to etch out the stranger’s features in vague lines and blue shadows. For a long moment the two faced each other in silence …

Then suddenly the huge figure lunged with terrible swiftness, his powerful hands seizing the Valeman’s wrists, and Flick was lifted abruptly off the solid earth and held high, his knife dropping from nerveless fingers as the deep voice laughed mockingly up at him.

“Well, well, my young friend! What are you going to do now, I wonder? I could cut your heart out on the spot and leave you for the wolves if I chose, couldn’t I?”

Flick struggled violently to free himself, terror numbing his mind to any thought but that of escape. He had no idea what manner of creature had subdued him, but it was far more powerful than any normal man and apparently prepared to dispatch Flick quickly.

Oh, I see, the voice is evil after all! The whole “I’m harmless” business was just to catch Flick off guard. Then there’s more redundant telling – we already know it’s powerful because it grabbed Flick and lifted him into the air, and the “cut out your heart” line made it clear it can dispatch him easily.

“Enough of this, boy! We have played our little game and still you know nothing of me. I’m tired and hungry and have no wish to be delayed on the forest trail in the chill of the evening while you decide if I am man or beast. I will set you down that you may show me the path. I warn you–do not try to run from me or it will be the worse for you.”

Wait, now the voice is letting Flick go again but threatening him if he doesn’t provide directions. I think this character might need some motivational coaching; its behavior is inconsistent. If it really just wanted directions, it could, I don’t know, just tell Flick what creature it is rather than making him guess. Maybe tell him where it’s from?

Don’t Use Vague Description to Lie to Readers

Flick could see the fellow more clearly now, and a quick scrutiny of him revealed that he was definitely human, though much larger than any man Flick had ever seen.

He’s human? But he flies! Wait a second… he doesn’t fly. This blew my mind. I had to go back and investigate why I thought he was a flying creature. It comes down to the mention of a blank winged creature in the beginning, setting an expectation it would appear again. The description Brooks uses for this character is so vague, it’s easy to see whatever you expect. For instance, I thought “detaching itself from a great oak tree” and “moving swiftly toward the path” meant it had been gripping the branches, then it swooped down. I now have a wonderful image of this guy hugging the tree trunk before reluctantly pulling himself away.

Again, Characters Should Be RATIONAL

The overall appearance [of the stranger] was frightening …

“You must learn to know a friend from an enemy. Sometime your life may depend upon it. Now then, let’s have your name.”

“Flick Ohmsford.”

Flick hesitated and then continued in a slightly braver tone of voice.

“My father is Curzad Ohmsford. He manages an inn in Shady Vale a mile or two from here. You could find lodging and food there.”

Flick, what are you doing?! Don’t invite him home! Don’t you remember the part where he gripped your wrist so hard your hands went numb, discussed cutting your heart out, and then threatened you if you ran off? Is that normal in your culture? Is the wrist lifting thing your village’s secret handshake? He looks frightening, it’s been established that most Valeman prefer isolation, and at best he’s a terrible bully. Now you’re pals for some reason.

On a more technical note, those last three paragraphs should have been in the same paragraph together. Unless your character goes on at length, wait until you narrate about a new person to start a new paragraph.

Obvious Hints Will Be Obvious

… he rubbed his craggy face with crooked fingers and looked beyond the forest’s edge to the rolling grasslands of the valley. He was still looking away when he spoke again.

“You… have a brother.”

It was not a question; it was a simple statement of fact. It was spoken so distantly and calmly, as if the tall stranger were not at all interested in any sort of reply, that Flick almost missed hearing it.

So that’s super random and oddly dramatic. You know what that means…


If you want your foreshadowing to be painfully obvious, make sure there’s no other possible reason for inserting whatever it is into your narrative. Then make a big deal out of it.

Boring Things Are Still Boring the Second Time

They passed out of the deep forest and entered rolling, gentle hills which they would follow to the hamlet of Shady Vale…

Except for the rushing of the wind, the night remained silent. …

After a while, Flick began to have trouble keeping pace with the tall man …

The stranger did not speak a single word during the brief journey…

zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz

Melodrama Will Freeze the Depths of Your Soul

“Quickly! Hide in the bushes ahead. Go now, run!”

… They ran quickly to the dark wall of foliage some fifty feet ahead…

… the sky was suddenly blotted out by something huge and black that floated overhead and then passed from sight. A moment later it passed again, circling slowly without seeming to move, its shadow hanging ominously above the two hidden travelers as if preparing to fall upon them. A sudden feeling of terror raced through Flick’s mind, trapping it in an iron web as it strained to flee the fearful madness penetrating inward. Something seemed to be reaching downward into his chest, slowly squeezing the air from his lungs, and he found himself gasping for breath. A vision passed sharply before him of a black image laced with red, of clawed hands and giant wings, of a thing so evil that its very existence threatened his frail life.

It’s a sudden and abrupt attack that happens suddenly! Just like the word “seem,” “sudden” and “abrupt” are rarely appropriate. Unless you deliberately slow the pace of your narrative, everything that happens already feels sudden to readers, and adding the word “suddenly” won’t make it feel more so.

Brooks has stuffed as much drama as he possibly could into this first impression of the forces of evil. There’s penetrating and fearful madness, things that seem to squeeze air from lungs, and the existence of life-threatening evil. For comparison, here’s how Tolkien describes the moment the hobbits are hiding next to the road, and the Nazgûl almost find them:

The sound of hoofs stopped. As Frodo watched he saw something dark pass across the lighter space between two trees, and then halt. It looked like the black shade of a horse led by a smaller black shadow. The black shadow stood close to the point where they had left the path, and it swayed from side to side. Frodo thought he heard the sound of snuffling. The shadow bent to the ground, and then began to crawl towards him.

Once more the desire to slip on the Ring came over Frodo; but this time it was stronger than before. So strong that, almost before he realized what he was going, his hand was groping in his pocket.

This is chilling, without the words “terror,” “fear,” “maddness,” “evil,” or other language that tells you to be scared. While Tolkien leaves the Nazgûl as a black shadow, he communicates clearly about what it’s doing. We’re creeped out because it’s doing creepy things. Brooks just has melodrama.

“That thing! What was that terrible thing?”

“Just a shadow,” the man replied easily. “But this is neither the place nor the time to concern ourselves with such matters.”

Hey… this guy is a Gandalf, isn’t he? A Gandalf that has an unfortunate habit of assaulting and threatening people who are frightened of him.

Then we have more traveling I won’t bother to fall asleep for.

At Least Take Your Own Melodrama Seriously

Already [Flick] was considering how much he ought to tell his father and Shea, not wishing to worry them about strange shadow that could easily have been the product of this imagination and the gloomy night.

After “Something seemed to be reaching downward into his chest, slowly squeezing the air from his lungs, and he found himself gasping for breath,” now he thinks it was all his imagination?

I’ll summarize what happens next. Flick and Evil Gandalf finally get into town; Evil Gandalf clearly knows where he’s going without directions. They enter the inn, and Flick goes to get his Father and brother Shea, asking them to join him and Evil Gandalf for dinner. Shea is conveniently out on an errand, but his father joins them and they finish dinner.

Choose a Perspective and Stick to It

Then Shea finally arrives.

For the first time, Flick saw the hooded stranger take more than a passing interest in someone. Strong hands gripped the table as the black figure rose silently… For one frightening second, Flick believed that the stranger was somehow about to destroy Shea, but then the idea disappeared and was replaced with another. The man was searching his brother’s mind.

He stared intently at Shea, his deep, shaded eyes running quickly over the young man’s slim countenance and slight build. He noted the telltale Elven features immediately–

Ahhh! Brooks has been throwing in whatever viewpoint he feels like throughout this chapter, but this is the worst case of head jumping yet. We go straight from Flick’s mind to Evil Gandalf’s mind without any warning. I thought I was still in Flick’s head, until coming across thoughts that were definitely not his. Very jarring.

Reconsider Eating All That Candy

… the young man’s slim countenance and slight build. He noted the telltale Elven features immediately–the hint of slightly pointed ears beneath the tousled blond hair, the pencil-like eyebrows that ran straight up at a sharp angle from the bridge of the nose rather than across the brow, and the slimness of the nose and jaw. He saw intelligence and honesty in that face, and now as he faced Shea across the room, he saw determination in the penetrating blue eyes–determination that spread in a flush over the youthful features as the two men locked their gazes on each other.

I can only assume by this Mary Sue level gushing that Shea is the actual main character of the book. Why, oh why, did we just spend the first chapter with Flick? My current guess is that Brooks wanted Evil Gandalf to be scary but didn’t want candy-coated Shea to be scared of him, so he put Flick in there instead. Because if Shea got any spinach, it would ruin everything.

Now any readers that have grown attached to Flick will have to let him go in favor of Shea. Since Shea is clearly a wish-fulfillment character, that probably pissed some people off.

Seriously, Reconsider

…the stranger reached up and pulled back the cowl of his cloak to reveal clearly the dark face…

You could have done that to make your meeting with Flick easier, just sayin’.

“My name is Allanon,” he announced quietly.

There was a long moment of stunned silence as the three listeners stared in speechless amazement. Allanon–the mysterious wanderer of the four lands, historian of the races, philosopher and teacher, and, some said, practitioner of the mystic arts.

Okay, we get it, Gandalf. Or rather, a poor imitation of him. Here is how Gandalf is introduced in the Lord of the Rings.

…the old man was Gandalf, the wizard, whose fame in the Shire was due mainly to his skill with fires, smokes, and lights. His real business was far more difficult and dangerous, but the Shire-folk knew nothing about it. To them he was just one of the ‘attractions’ at the Party.

Gandalf is cool because he’s unassuming but has great power underneath. We find out he’s a wanderer and all that by watching him do it during the books. For an introduction, Tolkien says just enough about his real nature to invoke curiosity, without flattering him.

Then Allanon declares he came specifically to find Shea, and there ends the chapter.

Overall Lessons

Most of the problems in this chapter stem from two things:

  1. Brooks doesn’t distinguish what’s important from what isn’t.
  2. Brooks prioritizes style over substance.

There’s a very good chance this book would be better without the first chapter. We don’t have a real plot or even a main character. Instead of a belabored journey to the hamlet, the story could start there with Shea. The dragon thing could appear briefly, and then Allanon could show up to tell Shea he’s the chosen one.

Instead of making his scenes genuinely interesting as Tolkien does, Brooks tries to make them interesting with overdone language. In this chapter we have two allies meet up, briefly see a flying shadow, and go to town. There’s no conflict there. So he tries to disguise Allanon as this scary creature via confusing description. Allanon has no reason to act like a scary creature, and Flick has no reason to bring a scary creature home, so they act inconsistently and irrationally to hold up the charade.

Between blunders, Brooks has shown he is capable of great illustration. But even when his prose is good, he doesn’t trust its effectiveness. He dilutes it by telling what he just showed and then repeating that several times. Perhaps I’ll find that his writing gains confidence as the series progresses, becoming more like the unadorned elegance of Tolkien.

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  1. Ahimsa

    This is fantastic! Even as a kid, when I kind of liked Shannara, I also kind of understood it was second-rate at best.

  2. K.

    Wow, you made me really want to read this novel, just to see how bad it is.
    Very nice post, I hope you’ll go through the whole book?

    • Chris Winkle

      We’ll see. If I keep reading I might just find the same types of problems again and again, and that would get boring. I’ll do it if this post is popular enough. Otherwise, you can probably look forward to critiques of other bad but popular books sometime in the future.

  3. Qondomon

    geez!!!!! now i’m feeling guilty of thinking that The Hobbit was a little annoying reading even if i love the Lord of the Rings world. Definitly there are some good passages that show how Tolkien writes not so pompous and unnecessary as I thought.

    And Terry Brooks wrote bad this book because it was his debut novel (I hope is this the reason). It should be like RA Salvatore, whose first novels was a bit boring and then began to improve.

    Yes, nowadays anybody can publish a book, and writing patterns are very different from twenty and more years ago. If Tolkien wanted today publish their stories would be a bit more complicated : \

    And continue reading this book will be too much effort for Chris so it is best to stop here and investigate other disastrous books (before sending our son – book – to the world, it takes much revision and common sense)

  4. Brant Forseng (@BrantForseng)

    This is great stuff. Sad to say that I have been guilty of committing several of these errors. Fortunately my critique group pointed them out with brutal efficiency.

    I like this post in particular for two reasons: First, examples from a published work are provided. Some writing blogs I have visited provide great advice but the examples are created specifically for that particular blog post, rather than being drawn from a published work. Second, if this quality can get published (albeit some time ago), then there’s hope for me!

    • Sara

      AHAh! I think in the same way

    • Forest--many shadowed

      I started “Sword of Shannara” when it was published, when I was in my mid-twenties. I couldn’t finish it, for many of the reasons mentioned here. Do any of his subsequent works merit attention? I recently finished Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and enjoyed most of it (it drags in some places, but…). Any suggestions?

  5. Lindal Evans Shepherd

    Steve, this is a brilliant piece. Too bad you weren’t Terry’s editor.

    • Chris Winkle

      Maybe he had a fantastic editor, but his writing was so rough that the editor just couldn’t fix it all for him. Who knows.

  6. Lauren

    I’ve read all three books in the series and owned them at one time. The writing is awkward and repetitious throughout and I found myself annoyed most of the time.

  7. Sara Baptista

    I didn’t read the books but i started to watch The Shannara Chronicles. Are the tv series like the books? And do you watch it? What do you think?

    • Chris Winkle

      I have not watched the tv series yet but I’ll probably give it a try. I’ll let you know what I think when I do. Do you like it so far?

      • Tom

        Not Sara here, sorry.

        I wanted to like the TV series. Unfortunately my cliche detector went nuts already in the first half hour and kept its level at an all-time high throughout the first episode.

        That was the point where I decided to delay watching the rest of the series to a point where I may want to punish myself for unmentionable deeds.

        The book is usually better than the movie, so as the last act in this part of my life, I went to the interwebs, researching the quality of Brooks’ writing.

        I ended up discovering mythcreants.com – thus a twist of fate turned a nightmarish experience into one of joy. Thanks for this great article!

    • Chris Winkle

      I have watched the series, it appears to be based on the second book rather than the first. I find the show fun to watch just because it has beautiful scenery, but the writing/acting/directing is rough. Since film isn’t a medium I have expertise in, I can’t pin down exactly which component is the problem, but the end result doesn’t make for a strong tv series. Still, you might enjoy it, I did.

  8. Anne Camp

    I read these books for the first time when I was in high school. Loved them. Read them again when I was in college…wondered HOW I could have ever liked the first book. However, the series does get better as it goes. The Elfstones breaks away from Tolkien and the plot not nearly so redundant. The opening still isn’t great though.

    He has actually publicly admitted, a few times to my understanding, that he knows Sword of Shannara isn’t all that good, but he does strive to become better.

    The real strength of the series, in my opinion, are the four books that come in the middle of the series, Talismans, Scions, Druid and Elf Queen. It’s just too bad that they’re so difficult to reach. I would be curious to know what you think of them.

    I’ve read a few of these ‘ lessons to learn from bad writing ‘ but I haven’t seen any breakdowns of books you think are good. I would very much like to see one of those.

    • Chris Winkle

      It’s nice to hear that he’s dedicated to improving. Some authors with bestsellers become complacent.

      Okay I give in, I will do a positive example lessons post (two other commenters have asked). It’ll take me a few months to get to it.

      I don’t think I’ll get to the middle of this series, but I’ll try to the new tv show and see how that is.

      • D C

        I feel like the show is very not very good as it goes on, really getting almost awful towards the end. So please don’t take the show as similar to the Elfstones book, they massively change the story.


        • Sara Baptista

          Unfortunately, I have to agree with D C. It was nice in the beginning, but the two last episodes were quite messy.

        • Chris Winkle

          I’ve only seen the first two episodes (those were the ones I could easily watch for free). I thought the acting and writing was rough, but I really liked the aesthetics they created for the world. Granted, the acting and writing might have been rough because they spent their entire budget on the sets and scenery.

  9. Hayley

    I recently stumbled across a second hand copy of this book and remembering how much I loved it aged 11 l, I was very excited to revisit it. I have never be so disappointed when reading a book for the second time. You have summed up how badly this book is written. I made myself read the entire thing and I was getting so frustrated at what should have been exciting events being written about in such a way that they ended up being deathly dull. To me it felt like he was telling you about what was happening rather than showing you.

  10. D C

    I read this book in elementary school, and it made me fall in love with fantasy and turned me into a geek. I read LOTR in junior high, and saw the similarities (although there quite a few different elements in sword), and saw how much more complex LOTR was, but at times Tolkien gets very excessive and slow. The Shannara series was a major influence on my young life.

    I am a reasonably intelligent, college educated adult in my 30s, a frequent writer of short fiction and someday hopefully a novelist, have read quite a bit of fiction. I recently re-read the series after seeing the awful adaptation MTV did, and while I spotted parts that were bad, overall I still felt it was a good story and still really enjoyed certain parts. I do feel I am capable of separating what I like for nostalgia purposes, and what I actually still like as an adult.

    I do feel like its the some of the worst writing of his books, although I still love the story more than elfstones or some of the others.

    I do think, as Anne said, is the Heritage series, the 4 books in the middle, are the best writing and storytelling. Granted I have not read the most recent trilogy in the series.

    I actually really enjoy the openings of the book, and the gentle picture he paints before moving into the plot, and felt that was very similar to tolkein.

    Is some of this subjective, or am I just stupid? Because I just don’t find his writing that bad, and the story rather good.

    I do think that Brooks’ writing is middle of the road to slightly above average as it goes on. For reference, I consider Paolinis’ first book Eragon, to be ‘bad’, not abysmal, but ‘bad’ writing, and Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series being some of the best, most in depth and complex writing I’ve found. I also consider it better than brooks or tolkein by far, probably the best writing out there in the fantasy genre.

    Ultimately, I’m going to enjoy reading what I enjoy reading, regardless of what someone else says about it, but when other people say its this bad, usually that comes with the realization that yes, its bad and I like it anyways but I see its bad, or I don’t like it because its that bad. I’m really shocked to hear just how you think his writing is “surprisingly bad” and I guess it is that that makes me stop and wonder about it.

    I would be very curious to see what you have to say if you read more of his books, especially the heritage series.

    Just my thoughts.


    • Chris Winkle

      Well you’re not stupid. In my experience, some people are just more critical of the media they consume than others. Some of this probably comes from education and other forms of training – it would be hard for me to stop and point out that Brook’s prose was full of clutter if I didn’t know what clutter was. Another big factor is probably objective distance. If you get caught up in the story, you won’t notice as many problems. Because of those factors and others, it’s quite possible for me to notice more genuine problems than you without being smarter than you.

      The question of what is subjective is always a tough one. In many cases, I feel confident saying things are objective problems because if the writing was done differently, I’m pretty sure some people would have a better experience, and I don’t think anyone would have a worse experience. But there are many areas that it’s difficult to point to what is objectively better. In writing, one of the biggest disagreements is over creativity vs clarity. I could describe a tree so artfully that a reader would have to stop and figure out what I’m talking about, and some writers would think that’s better. Literary fiction focuses on creativity more than genre fiction does.

      Another area that often gets contentious is character analysis, just because people interpret characters so differently. I think Flick inviting evil Gandalf home is unrealistic, but someone else might feel it’s normal because of X, Y, and Z ideas about the character that Brooks never actually states but maybe implies somehow.

      I think being more critical other’s writing can help us improve our own writing, but unfortunately we all lose some objective distance when examining our own works. And there’s a serious downside: the more critical you are, the harder it is to read for pleasure. It’s great that you were able to come back to a book you loved as a kid and enjoy it again.

    • Blues Dancer

      I am in the Herrtage Series right now and am enjoying it! I would recommend it as the books to judge over Mr. Brooks VERY FIRST BOOKS. Gosh! It seems more like jealousy that Mr. Brooks was successful with his very first books. I think new readers (and ones not from my generation) lose track of when the book was written and where fantasy books placed in the minds of someone reading the books in the late 1970’s as to a fantasy reader of maybe the year 2010? Mr. Brooks first book filled a need for that time. He was just learning back then yet, he knew the need for more of this style fantasy was not explored well enough back then. The quality of the writing is not as important as satisfying the needs of readers of that timeframe in society.

      • Cay Reet

        There’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy the books, however, the ‘Lessons from…’ posts here are for learning purposes. By pointing out the mistakes even successful writers can make, the writers frequenting this site and still working on their skills can learn and develop. As a matter of fact, the books discussed in these posts are chosen for being successful. For being widely known and thus easy to reference.

      • Bunny

        Someone didn’t like something that I like? Someone dared to criticize something that I like? How could they! I like this thing and that is the right opinion. They’re so jealous of this thing they dislike; that’s the only explanation. Jealous haters, every one of ’em. BAH!
        Respect others’ opinions, please. They may differ from yours. Especially on such trivial things as this.

  11. Jesse

    My brother gave me this book a year ago for my birthday. It took me about 6 months to read it, as I read it out loud before bed and I would have to stop reading every paragraph so my wife and I could lament the terrible writing. Google led me to this website.

    For the most part, the same problems exist, but you can add unnecessary exposition dumps, forgettable characters (there are two elves, I forgot about one of them about half way through the book), potential racism and sexism, and strange story decisions (such as taking so much space describing “friendly stars” but hearing second hand about two major battles that some of the main characters participate in). The book could have been half the length and twice as good.

    My favorite nonsense moment was when a main character takes off his boots, runs around in the mud, cutting up his feet, just so he will have an excuse to be injured. The plot demands injured feet! Make it so!

    • Sophie the Jedi Knight

      Ha! I was literally laughing out loud after reading that last part! Wow, these books sound so bad it’s hilarious! To be honest, I can only think of one book I’ve read that I didn’t finish (The Magician’s Nephew, I was because it seemed too boring. But I try to make an effort to finish every book I start – no matter how bad. Good job on your part, Jesse!

      • Sophie the Jedi Knight

        Wow, sorry about the last comment emoji. I was trying to say eight but it got messed up.

  12. Ed

    I read this book when I was in High school I hated reading cause it was hard for me to follow most books. But got turned onto the Fantasy books like this. Along with Conan and Token, John Carter of Mars and so on. For a kid that had a hard time reading these books actually pulled me in and I couldn’t hardly set them down.

    Perhaps it is because I’m less educated then most and don’t always have a great handle on spelling and grammar. But it did inspire the desire to write and my own stories. Though I don’t think I will ever be as good as Brooks and now I am hearing he is bad.

    It was interesting to hear your Critic though some of the direction you would have gone would have been correct but would have made me lose interest. I can be wrong but to me writing is an art not everyone will enjoy the way you want to draw the scene.

    There is much someone like me can learn from this, and still stay true to the art and realize what others might take away and try to improve on it.


  13. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    I have a question about one of your complaints. You said that part of the reason this was bad was because early on, Brooks used vague description to “lie” to the readers and make them think Evil Gandalf (haha) was the dragon thingy. Was that a bad thing? I agree it messed with the readers’ brains, but you made another post about using vague description to mess with readers. Did I misread this and you actually liked the vague description, or do you think vague description is only good in small doses? Thanks.

    • Chris Winkle

      Sorry it if wasn’t clear, but the article on using description to mess with readers was satire – that’s precisely what you should not do. Unfortunately, there are bad as well as good ways to surprise readers. What those are depends on the perspective you are writing in, which makes it a little complicated. If you are writing in third person close, as in, if this was written from Flick’s perspective, then if Flick saw the shadow and thought it was a flying creature, then figured out it wasn’t along with the audience, that would be fine. But it would not be okay for Flickr to know exactly what it was, and the audience to be left in the dark. In omniscient perspective, like the troublesome description here is written in, it’s okay to leave some things unspecified, but not to lie or deliberately mislead about the shadow. Omniscient narrators can tell or not tell whatever they want, but the information they give is supposed to be reliable. Regardless, you don’t want description that outright confuses people unless you’re announcing it as a mystery that will be solved during the story.

      I hope that clarifies for you. I have articles on many things I mentioned here, if you want links just let me know.

      • Sophie the Jedi Knight

        Thanks. I can see the difference in the types of vague description you mentioned.

  14. Amy Laurel

    Ha! Great example of learning from a story you hated. I really couldn’t get into these books either. I tried several times. Thanks for the post!

  15. Pershing

    I put this book down after 50 pages to run a Google search for the phrase “Terry Brooks bad writing.” This was the top result.

    After seeing this series on so many fantasy top-10 lists, I figured I’d give the first three books a shot, but there’s no way any story is worth this frustration.

    Your play-by-play critique is fantastic and validated many of the thoughts I had whilst slogging through this opening. Had you continued on, you would have become lost in an even more tangled web of adverbs and redundancy. My last-straw paragraph came near the end of chapter four, where Brooks uses the word “quickly” three times and refers to the silence as (in order of appearance): uneasy, unnatural, strange, uncomfortably familiar, deep, and oppressive. In one paragraph. Yikes.

    I know Robert Jordan gets a lot of flack for his pacing, but I found the WoT books infinitely more readable. If anyone is looking to embark on an epic fantasy journey, try that one instead.

    • Tom Linton

      I made it 61 pages before doing the same thing, primary hope being to vindicate my opinion, secondary objective being to find a recommendation of well written fantasy. I’ll try Jordan, thanks.

  16. Elias

    Late, LATE to this party but this is BRILLIANT and indispensable to new writers–and a good refresher to some of us, not-so-new writers.

  17. Tumblingxelian/Vazak

    Incredibly insightful and well laid out!

  18. SunlessNick

    I now have a wonderful image of this guy hugging the tree trunk before reluctantly pulling himself away.

    Well, he does turn out to be a druid.

  19. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    Haha! I was on an intense Mythcreants reread and decided to reread this one – ah the memories of when I first discovered this incredible site!

    “What else could it be detaching, its lunchbox?”

    “I now have a wonderful image of this guy hugging the tree trunk before reluctantly pulling himself away.”

    I laughed out loud. I forgot how entertaining your commentary could be. Keep up the good work!

  20. Blues Dancer

    The Sword of Shannara was the second fantasy book I ever read. I was 11 years old and just finished reading The Hobbit and was looking for more. I found The Sword of Shannara (just came out that month) on an end cap and grabbed it because a dwarf was on the cover and I wanted more stories on dwarfs (and elves). I am a visual thinker, artistic, and enjoy a writer who puts my senses into the scene and puts the thoughts of the storybook characters into my mind. Terry Brooks drabbling outside the main topics was perfectly suited for the things I enjoy. He writes in detail on subjects I have deep appreciation for. What may be ideal for the writer of this article or for the TV watching fanatics (the TV series was trash to me) is not enjoying for all. For the past year I have been listening to the audio books (and reading the ones that have no audio version) starting with Imaginary Friends and proceeding chronologically through all of the series (I am presently at The Druid of Shannara). I find the visuals Mr. Brooks creates quite satisfying without overdoing to become an annoyance. I would tell Mr. Brooks to take this article as a major compliment. Look at all the work taken to pick apart your writing style Mr. Brooks. You are not the perfect writer and I am certainly not the perfect reader. I am still going to use my one hour drive to work today listening to your books … Mr. Brooks. I am glad this article was written to show my horrible tastes in writing styles because I am not at all a perfectionist seeking reader. These books were great for me when I was 11 and also when I am 53. I am glad this article is out there for writers to see that perfect writing is not always what some people need.

    • Kaitlily

      Thank you Blues Dancer. You articulated my feelings exactly. Perfection doesn’t always bring enjoyment. Poe said “there is no beauty without some strangeness.”

  21. Greg S

    I finished the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in 6th grade (early 1980’s). I started the first Shannara book shortly thereafter, and put it down after finishing the first couple chapters, because it was so clearly an unashamed ripoff of Lord of the Rings.

    Modern readers may not see it as such, because when things get ripped off enough, they turn into tropes. But even putting aside whether Shannara is a blatant ripoff or just a furtherance of tropes, the insipid writing shows through.

  22. Bob

    I read the first book long ago and hated it. I never went further because of both the rip-off angle and the horrid writing. To think that new books in this series are STILl being published is mind boggling!

  23. Dee Conne

    I also am not a fan of Terry Brooks, or his writing. However, this: “The familiar buzzing and chirping of insects normally present in the quiet of the night, the cries of birds that awoke with the setting of the sun to fly in search of food” is a mess of a sentence. It detracts from the great set up of the scene and made me not want to read your version.

    ‘the cries of the birds that awoke with the setting of the sun’ really?

    Your article is good, but, when you preach good writing but make a blunder like the above, I kind of wonder.

  24. pk

    Alas, the tragedy is that all these bestselling authors will probably never read these Mythcreants blogs and will likely go to their graves not truly knowing how to write books that appeal to people. Such senseless waste!

    • A Perspiring Writer

      “Bestselling authors”

      “Not truly knowing how to write books that appeal to people”


      • pk

        Ironic, no?

        • A Perspiring Writer

          I legitimately can’t tell if this is serious or a joke.

          What I meant is that if they’re bestselling authors, then their books obviously appeal to SOMEBODY.

          Maybe they might not be good writers, but they certainly write books that appeal to people.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            To clarify, pk is implying that because these books are popular, they must be good in all ways and as such any critisism is invalid. Pk is also implying that because Mythcreants is not run by best selling fiction writers, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

            The first part is a standard fanrage tactic which never holds up to scrutiny. Stories get popular for lots of reasons, and there are always areas where they could do better. Plus, whenever someone says “popular equals good,” there’s always some popular story they don’t think is good. It’s usually Twilight.

            The second part is a standard arguing from authority fallacy. These are best selling authors, so they *must* know what they’re talking about. You can tell how silly this argument is because Mythcreants is one of the biggest writing sites out there, but for some reason, people like pk never think that authority should override their personal opinions.

          • A Perspiring Writer

            Ah, that makes sense. I didn’t catch on to the sarcasm in the original post*. (I’m autistic, so sarcasm can sometimes fly right over my head**.)

            *Or rather, I couldn’t tell if the author was being sarcastic or not.

            **Which is weird because I should be able to catch it***.

            ***Yes, that’s a Guardians of the Galaxy reference. And yes, I’ll see myself out now.

          • A Perspiring Writer

            One extra bit of clarification I forgot to put in my comment:

            I specifically have trouble with sarcasm in WRITING. But then again, many people do*.

            *Turns out, inflection can be very important to understanding a sentence. Who knew?

    • Bunny

      The intended audience for these types of posts isn’t the authors of the books, so the point you’re attempting to drive at here doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Additionally, just because a book is bestselling does not mean it is flawless or that it is exempt from anything but praise. A lot of lucrative and/or popular media has problems that we as writers can learn from, and if we reject criticism simply because it is critical, we only hinder ourselves.

      • A Perspiring Writer

        That isn’t the point I’m trying to make*.

        The original comment said that many bestselling authors don’t know how to write books that appeal to people, but the fact that their books are so popular shows that they DO appeal to people, and that’s why they’re bestselling.

        The quality of the books never came up, at least in my comments. Just if bestselling books appeal to people, which I feel that they do.

        *Maybe it was just worded poorly. Sometimes I have trouble wording my comments in a way that gets my intentions across correctly.

        • A Perspiring Writer

          you were responding to the original post, weren’t you

          • Bunny

            I was responding to pk, yeah But a good point made twice doesn’t make it less good!

  25. G. K.

    So Evil Gandalf accosts a young boy in the woods at night time, then acts all nice, then threatens him, and then gets all pissy because the young boy cant decide if Evil Gandalf is nice or wants to hurt him? Dick move EG, dick move.

  26. ThelHB

    I read this book in 8th grade and found it captivating. 30 years later, i’m reading it again…………. and still find it captivating, and well written. Disagree with the “lessons in writing” this article is trying to teach. Oh well, everyone has thier own opinion.

  27. Arix

    I mean, you can love something to death and still acknowledge its faults (just playing devil’s advocate here, not familiar enough with the work in question to say much more about it specifically).

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